Jewish family loses out to Louvre over WWII spoliation case

After an emergency ruling, the Louvre retains five Italian paintings that were salvaged after the war and the aggrieved Gentili family must now await appeal. Meanwhile, the Musée national d’art moderne has approved the return of more works


There have been new developments in the long-running issue over works of art salvaged by the Allies after the last war, the famous Musées Nationaux Récuperation (MNRs), which came to public attention last year. Five paintings in the Louvre, including a Tiepolo, have been claimed, but the judge has thrown out demands for their restitution.

The heirs of Frédéric Gentili di Giuseppe, a lawyer whose collection was dispersed in Paris during the Occupation, demanded the return of five Italian paintings held on a provisional basis by the Louvre.

They issued writs against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the museum in the hope of having the sale by court order of 1941 declared spoliatory and therefore invalid.

Their claim was based on the order of 21 April 1945, which the public prosecutor invoked in their favour, denouncing as he did so the inertia and dishonesty of the various administrations involved for rejecting the judge’s offer of mediation. In an emergency ruling, the vice-president of the Paris departmental court ignored his offer and nonsuited the claimants.

Mr Gentili’s death occurred shortly before the German invasion of France; after the invasion his family were obliged to flee the country. The execution of his will was entrusted to a provisional administrator. To settle an apparently very large debt, the administrator proceeded to sell off the Gentili collection of about 150 paintings, including the five now in the Louvre. Mr Gentili’s family are of the opinion that, even if this auction ever took place, Jewish property was at the time frozen by the Vichy government and therefore money owed could not be repaid. The amount they received was a fraction of what was due. This was equivalent to spoliation.

Documents supplied late in the day by the lawyer’s office put this claim in rather a different light. They reveal that the administrator, whose role previously had appeared somewhat murky, had been appointed at the request of the lawyer himself and that the debts were far greater than was first thought. Mr Corinne Herschkovitch, lawyer to the family, noted however that “probate had not been settled, therefore the repayment of the debts could not yet be enforced”. In addition, mortgage repayments on a building worth FFr4 million had been extended by the lenders in August 1940; the money was repaid in 1947.

The Germans take an interest

In the view of Mme Herschkovitch, the sale was spoliatory because there was no written agreement from the children of the deceased to authorise the sale, and also because “there were other ways of discharging the debts” (the sum of FFr25 million shared between the heirs of Mr Gentili in 1948 would appear to confirm this). On the other hand there was a lot of interest in the sale, particularly among the Germans, who were present when the paintings were removed from the apartment and who bought several of them, through third parties. This interest was certainly behind the sale: they did not want the collection pillaged.

It appears, however, that these circumstances were not sufficiently adverse to characterise the “under duress” mentioned as the cause of invalidity in the order of 1945. Nevertheless, the judge’s refusal to take all these factors into account weakens his decision and opens the way for an appeal. Mr Herschkovitch considers it “intolerable for the State to deny the rights of legal heirs”; she has decided to lodge a protective appeal while waiting for her client’s decision.

Four MNRs returned

The Musée national d’art moderne (MNAM) meanwhile continues its efforts to return MNRs to their owners. They have been able to return a Foujita to the Schwob d’Héricourt family, a Gleizes and a Picabia to the heirs of Alphonse Kann and, more recently, Utrillo’s “La rue du Mont-Cenis à Montmartre” to the same family.

Picasso’s “Head of a woman” (oil on canvas, 1921), although categorised as an MNR, has not however been returned to the Kann heirs because recent discoveries have revealed that the work of that title in the Nazi inventory was a drawing, which had already been returned.

The Nazi lists certainly have gaps in them, but the Kann collection was in a continuous state of flux, the dealer buying and selling all the time. It should arouse no surprise that a painting bought by him in 1924 was no longer in his possession in 1940.

The MNAM has announced that the paintings not listed as MNRs but claimed by the Kann heirs, Georges Braque’s “Guitar player” and Juan Gris’ “Blue rug” and “Pierrot” will not be handed over. The Braque, bought from a gallery owner in 1981, was identified in 1982 as having at some time been in the Kann collection but no demand for its return was made at the time. It reappeared in 1948 in the Lefevre collection and its ownership was never concealed, but Alphonse Kann, still alive at the time, made no claim on it. This does not augur particularly well for eligible claimants, neither does the absence of the two Juan Gris paintings from the lists.